A Tree Grows in Texas
Huizache, the premier Chicanx literary magazine, was born in Texas but had to flee the state to find a home.
When Dagoberto Gilb came to serve as writer-in-residence at the University of Houston-Victoria and found a literary center, he was assured he’d only have to teach one course per semester.
“I had a contract, an agreement whose validity all academics take for granted based on academic traditions and guarantees that are honored across the country,” Gilb told the Texas Observer.
After eight years and under new leadership, the university asked Gilb to teach two more classes. Gilb sued for breach of contract and discrimination in state court, characterizing this as part of a campaign to “bully and force [him] into either retirement or a complete alteration of his agreement with UHV.”
“When the president of the university was responding in his communications with Dago, instead of saying ‘Professor Gilb,’ he says: ‘Senor Gilb,’ you know—without the tilde,” said Gilb’s attorney, Joe Crews.
UHV pushed the case to federal court, where it was dismissed based on sovereign immunity—which, as Alice-in-Wonderland as this sounds, means that no one can sue the state-funded school unless the university permits it. Gilb filed another lawsuit in state court, which is still pending.
UHV declined to comment on the allegations.
Gilb described this treatment he and his literary journal Huizache received as an “aggressive, dismissive stupidity, arrogance, ignorance that I’d call racist in its absence of awareness at its minimum.”
Huizache, a Chicano-focused literary magazine that received immediate national attention from media outlets like the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker, could not make it in Texas. Gilb seems to blame his own naïveté when he sarcastically writes in the latest issue: “Is it surprising that Texas didn’t respect such a premiere MexAm mag? With its wonderful history of treating us so lovingly along the long border and inside all its cities, legal and penal system, and government bodies?” Mocking his early optimism, he adds, “I really believed the old Texas and its bigoted disregard for our historical value was over. I really believed in a new Texas, that a new history was being made.”
For a moment, Gilb considered the possibility of having the University of Texas at Austin take over the magazine but, encountering no enthusiasm when he brought the idea up to the director of the Center for Mexican American Studies, he dropped the dream of keeping the journal in Texas.
“Enthusiasm and excitement are never slow,” said Gilb, who could easily think of at least three places in California where a journal like Huizache would be appreciated. So the magazine—named after the notoriously resilient Mexican tree that grows everywhere in South and East Texas—survives now as a literal transplant in California, where, as Gilb said, “Chicano is an institutional word.”
In a torch-passing forward to the latest issue of the journal that had been on hiatus since 2019, Gilb addressed the sudden lack of UHV’s interest in both him and Huizache, which he linked to the changing political climate and rise in unabashed racial discrimination coming from administrations across the land: “The country was Obama’s when I took this job,” he wrote. Gilb was not prepared for the Trump presidency, when he received an email in the fall of 2017 letting him know UHV wanted to end his appointment.
Things were very different in 2009, when Gilb was vigorously recruited by UHV to leave his tenured position as a creative writing professor at Texas State University and join the school as a writer-in-residence whose duties would include teaching a single class and creating a literary center of his choice.
Having just edited the much-lauded anthology Hecho en Tejas, Gilb elected to keep illuminating the role Latinos play in literature by creating CentroVictoria, a center for Mexican-American literature and culture, a program that launched the acclaimed Latinx literary magazine Huizache: The Magazine of New American Writing, which aimed at a wider readership than historically significant precursors like El Grito and Revista Chicano-Riqueña.
“There was great support initially for whatever I did,” Gilb explained. “This president was ambitious and wanted UHV to grow, and he listened to me.”
Huizache’s eight years at UHV—a university that for a brief time under then-President Tim Hudson not only had Gilb heading CentroVictoria, but hosted the avant-garde publisher Dalkey Archive Press and the literary journal the American Book Review—can now be seen for the anomaly it was. The school’s brief experiment in fostering the experimental makes clear that at UHV, the literary arts were considered a liability to the business of higher learning.
“The art kill wasn’t ‘announced,’” said Gilb, referring to the way the leadership lost interest in his literary contributions. “You just see what happens, who gets let go, the redirection of their ideas.”
Charles Alcorn, the former editor of the American Book Review, who suggested to Hudson that he hire Gilb, recalled the initial support he received. “We wanted to recruit the right kinds of professors” to create “a liberal arts haven in South Texas.”
According to Alcorn, who named a character from his upcoming novel Beneath the Sands of Monahans “Archie Weesatche” in twain tribute to both the magazine and the unincorporated community near Victoria, the leaders who came after Hudson didn’t think a small university like UHV needed to be that involved in liberal arts and quickly shifted focus to job training.
“It’s just a shame,” Alcorn lamented. “It is so unfortunate because it really galvanized the Latino community of Victoria. It was a point of pride for them. We had great attendance from the Hispanic community, you know; it was a golden era.”
Gilb, whose work has appeared several times in the New Yorker and Harper’s and who frequently contributes to literary journals like the Threepenny Review and Zyzzyva, is arguably the best-published living Mexican-American writer, and he knows exactly what he brought to UHV. “Of course, they hired me as a Mexican-American writer of national stature; of course, they wanted CentroVictoria to represent a major part of their humanities department,” he said.
Gilb was asked to recruit instructors as well. “When they no longer wanted me, they were not talking only me,” he said, alluding to some of the hires made during his tenure who are no longer teaching at UHV.
When Gilb knew he would no longer be able to keep Huizache going at UHV, he reached out to Maceo Montoya, a past contributor and an associate professor in the Chicana/o studies department at the University of California, Davis, to take on the role of managing editor.
“I chose Maceo because he is serious and smart and not a ‘me me me’ person. Which I believe you must be to be an editor—someone willing to treat the mag as the end and purpose, not [to serve] your buddies or agenda or your own career, not certain writers only, but all of us,” Gilb enthused about Montoya.
Full disclosure: This “all of us” Gilb talks about includes me, too. My story “Red Lines Drawn in the Blue Room” appeared in issue 7.
Getting into Huizache was an absolute honor, but it was never anything I assumed would happen. I have known Dago on and off since 1997, when he invited me to join him and a few other writers, including Christine Granados and Oscar Casares, for Friday night fiction exchanges in his garage apartment that he was calling the “illegal, undocumented workshop.” Nine years later, he reprinted my story “They Let Me Drive” in Hecho en Tejas. But despite Gilb’s encouragement, sending anything to his magazine—with its contributor list of writers like Juan Felipe Herrera, Héctor Tobar, and Benjamin Alire Saenz (writers I might admire but knew I shared little actual aesthetics with)—felt like a test to see if my kind of writing was Huizache material.
That initial trepidation about submitting to a Chicano-focused journal speaks to the categorical issues of Chicano literature itself—and my own uncomfortable suspicion that that category is never really up to the writer, but rather a label imposed upon creativity that might otherwise be hard to market.
“There is often this expectation of what Chicano or Latinx literature should look like, and Huizache is looking for work that defies those expectations, that feels truly new,” Montoya said, adding: “It might be a familiar story, but it’s told in a way that takes us into new territory.”
Montoya, the son of Chicano visual artist Malaquais Montoya and nephew of Chicano poet and artist José Montoya, appreciates the responsibility yoked to Chicano literature. Given that Mexican-American writing is no longer suffering from scarcity, Montoya feels that discernment is required and that not everything that appears under the guise of Chicanx is worth championing.
“I understand why there’s a desire to celebrate our work no matter what,” stressed Montoya, whose own fiction often combines visual and textual elements into not-easily-classifiable assemblages. “We are so often overlooked and ignored and not published and not reviewed, but it does our literature a disservice if we are not clear about the quality of the work, how it’s crafted, or its complexity.”
Chicano literature, which can claim the quasi-absurdist autobiographies of Oscar Zeta Acosta and the mirage-like border meditations of Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa, is perhaps only in its adolescence; it is not served by easy assumptions regarding what its style and subject matter are supposed to be. A poem in the current issue of Huizache by José Olivarez addresses the touchy territory of employing Chicanx literary tropes: “apologies to all of the sad Mexicans i know and all of the sad Mexicans i’ve been. but i can’t write another poem where we show up to work at the steel mill for 20 years straight with no days off just to get laid off on a Wednesday by a man with more mustache than face.”
“There are a lot of assumptions about what Latinx literature is,” said Huizache’s first editor, Diana López, whose latest fiction, Felice and the Wailing Woman, is a middle school-level, feminist reframing of the la llorona myth. “One of the things that made me so proud of Huizache is that it really did show that whatever people think Latino literature is—you know, and I am just going to say that for a long time, a lot of it was the recent immigrant story, the migrant worker story, the gangbangers story, the poverty story, the stereotypes that a lot of people have. Huizache did such a good job of showing that, no, it’s a lot more than that.”
Carribean Fragoza, the author of the experimentally savvy collection Eat the Mouth that Feeds You, is ready to use her position as Huizache’s newest prose editor to invite contributors to address this contemporary cultural complexity with genre-blurring works. As both an artist and critic, Fragoza sees Huizache as “a space for a conversation about whatever we want as long as it’s somehow related to Latinx or Chicanx sensibilities and concerns.”
“I think this is an interesting moment for literature by all writers of color, not just Latinx or Chicanx writers but just like this sort of interest in the speculative and even a somewhat return to, like magical [realist] sensibilities or fabulist,” said Fragoza, who encourages “slightly weird, slightly altered” submissions that explore the liminal plight of a new Latinx generation for whom “the connection to Latin America might be a little bit different.”
“I did not grow up on Mango Street,” Gilb said, regarding the publishing trend that seems to want to keep Latino literature in a juvenile category. “And publishers push [‘young adult’] at us because of Mango Street love—elementary school to high school textbook material—they believe is our strong area.”
As Gilb observes, the problem with publishers focusing on promoting clones of familiar Latinx titles is that the strategy obscures other, more consciously mature and complex voices, thus bracketing the literature into a category that must be handled with kid gloves. “To me, the biggest issue with it is that it is the only us allowed or considered and, even by our own [writers],” Gilb said. “It is the children’s menu, and the adult-money adults get to try a large, diverse menu. We don’t even let ourselves try other cuisines. My favorite is Mexican, but I love French food, I love veggies, I love Texas beef when I let myself eat it.”
Gilb—whose most intricate writing often displays obvious influences of Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Paul Bowles, and Juan Rulfo—knows something about the frustration of categorical labels. “We mostly get lit version of the sleepy Mexican or the fast-shooting and talking-back bandido,” he said.
A glance at the disparate crew of Huizache’s past contributors—a list that includes a mordant memoirist like Domingo Martinez and the sly and sage work of Carmen Tafolla—makes any prejudice about what to expect with Chicano literature fruitless.
Without a journal like Huizache (and really, there is only Huizache) to point a curious but uninformed reader to, belittling and stereotypical labels might happen to even your most celebrated Latino writer.
Due to what can only be a very shallow reading of his subject matter, which is male-oriented and often about working-class struggles, Gilb’s thematic reputation has too often been reduced to some kind of macho man-of-letters. The underlying assumption seems to have even influenced journalists. In 2011, when Gilb was being interviewed by Texas Monthly reporter Christopher Kelly for a piece that first ran in the New York Times, Gilb said that people had described his writing as “brainy and strong.” Somehow, the reporter heard “brawny and strong” and somehow also thought Gilb was using this paper towel-selling adjectives to describe himself.
“Brawny’ was 100 percent his ‘hearing’ and ‘preconception,’ which he overdubbed as if from my mouth,” Gilb remarked about the unfortunate misquotation.
The latest issue of Huizache—which contains Daniel Chacón’s recollection of witnessing his father shrink into submission while trying to get credit at an appliance store, and concrete poetry by Yaccaira Salvatierra that reconfigures the pejorative concept of “anchor baby” into mythic language—makes ignoring the nuance of contemporary Chicanx writing an act of willful ignorance.
Elaborating on the risk-taking writing he wants to see in Huizache, Gilb is blunt: “The goal is no boring shit. No clichés, stereotypes, tropes. No didactic yawns for high school and even younger students. A real mag for a larger community,” said Gilb, who wants “real literature” that is “daring, dangerous, fun, driven, obsessive” and on a level with “Dostoevsky and Collete.”
Huizache is a literary magazine, like Zyzzyva, like the Paris Review. Poems and stories accepted under Gilb’s editorship were at the mercy of some hard-won taste informed by close readings of the Gnostics, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Albert Camus.
ire’ne lara silva, the Austin-based poet and fiction writer who spells her name in lower case as a visual reminder that her work is about “honoring silent ancestors,” described how gratifying it was to have two poems published in the discerning journal: “You know you always get the sense that the editors were very, very careful, very selective about what they chose but it was still a space I think that embraced a lot of writers that embraced and embraces a lot of writers.”
“Huizache always felt like a possible home,” said lara silva, whose last submission was too long to appear in the latest issue without significant editing, which the e.e. cummings and bell hooks-inspired prose stylist declined to make. “From the very beginning, I thought it was something that was desperately needed,” she said, adding: “If I had to pick a favorite tree, it would be a huizache since I was a kid, a tree that’s fascinated me.”
Anticipating the editorial changes that are sure to come to Huizache in its move to California, lara silva said: “It might take a while for the aesthetics to change because I don’t think Dagoberto is going to be willing to let go. He might not completely be willing to completely step back from it.”
As far as issue 9 is concerned, lara silva’s suspicion regarding Gilb’s remaining influence as editor emeritus is confirmed.
Gilb personally solicited new fiction from María Isabel Alvarez, a first-generation Guatemalan-American writer whose story “Ears in the Radish Field” is in the current issue.
“I had a story I’d been tinkering with a few years about two Guatemalan teenagers who discover a magical ear, but the piece needed work,” Alvarez said. “Dagoberto gave me a deadline, and that pressure forced me to sit down and commit to the revision I’d been avoiding.”
A few hours later, Dagoberto reached out to tell her he loved it.
“He has been nothing but supportive and encouraging. I’m thrilled to be part of a journal that welcomes both emerging and established voices,” Isabel Alvarez said.
With litigation ongoing, a collection of essays “on hold,” and an entirely new book of stories titled New Testament done but still awaiting a green light from the right publisher, Gilb is keenly aware of how inattention and underappreciation can oppress the arts.
Singing the praises of the up-and-coming author, Gilb said María Isabel Alvarez “has all the brush strokes to be not just a star in our narrow and confined world of Latinas/Latinos, but to be in the footstep and stature of a García Márquez,” adding: “I hope the powers that still are controlling art and lit allow her to bust out of the dull boxes they confine us to.”